Sex may sell, but buyer beware

It’s not sex that sells, it’s really women and girls that we are selling — our bodies and our image, believes Linda Kelly

AS an end to our debate about the recent Hunky Dory ads , my friend fixed me with a stare, let out an exasperated sigh and issued the death knell to the conversation: “What do you expect Linda? Sex sells. That’s not going to change.”

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable truth she had uttered. Many of you will agree that sex has always been a commodity in our culture, more proliferated in recent times definitely, but always a constant and that to be naive enough to speak out against it is a battle that can never be won. Yet, I find myself dusting off my shield, mounting my horse and getting ready to head to the battlefield again.

It is not just the idea that using sex to sell products is ok and should be accepted. Inherent in my friend’s comment was the idea that an individual cannot create change. Both arguments go to the core of what I believe and challenge what they find there. And facing up to that challenge, I have to admit I still disagree with both ideas. So let’s get straight to it. What is it about sex that sells?

Well firstly, it’s not sex that sells. When you compare the prevalence of women as sex objects to men in the same position it’s pretty clear that it’s really women and girls that we are selling — our bodies and our image. This is indeed another uncomfortable truth that we shy away from. We talk about the sexualisation of children but when did you last see a shop selling figure enhancing underwear to young boys?

Exactly. Yet push up bras for ten year old girls (and much younger) are widely accepted as inevitable. Commentators often rush to blame the parents who buy them. Before you nod in agreement that it is indeed the parents fault, ask yourself, who does this answer suit? It suits the multibillion dollar fashion industry that mass produces these items and puts thousands of millions into advertising campaigns. Instead of blaming parents, why don’t we wonder why these industries think it is acceptable to create and market a product which turns a young girl into a sex object? Because the answer is as unpalatable as the question — it suits our male dominated power structures to limit women by judging them from an early age on how they look.

From where I’m sitting, watching my 10 year old niece grow up, I can see the amount of effort society is putting in to groom her to be the ‘perfect sexual woman’. From the music videos she watches to the clothes on sale in the shops she is surrounded by images that are teaching her, not only that the beauty ideal is a size eight blonde with sizeable breasts, but equally that the less clothes she wears and the more sexually explicit she is, then the more powerful she will be. And it’s not just young girls who are subsumed by this image. I’m 25 and am affected by it just as much as she is.

Feeling intense pressure to lose weight, to be hairless, to be sexually available (without the reputation of a whore of course), to watch porn so you know ‘what men want’ are all common worries among my peers. This is the ‘sex’ we are being sold and the product is a complete dud which does us a disservice. So insidious is it that most women don’t question why we are being made to feel like this. Instead we binge on products designed to help us achieve this utopia of the ‘perfect woman’ because somewhere along the way we’ve been convinced that wearing less clothes (among other things) makes us more powerful, more independent and more equal.

And similar to blaming parents on the issue of bras, we turn around and blame women for participating in this culture. But what choice do we really have not to conform on some level with this?

Very little is the honest answer. I’m always fascinated that women are blamed for this monster, when it is mainly male dominated media, male dominated industries and male dominated politics that have created it and continue to perpetuate it. Would you blame a black person for being the victim of racism? Of course not — so then why blame women for being the victim of a sexist system?

This ideal of the ‘perfect woman’ negatively impacts women on a number of levels. Not only am I talking about self esteem issues and eating disorders, but also about violence. In the same breath that society advises we should dress provocatively and wear our sex on our sleeve, it also castigates us for it when we are attacked.

Preliminary results (to be released later this month) from a recent study of college students carried out by the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork found that 45% of young men think that a girl, through what she wears, risks rape. Blaming a woman for getting raped is a common defence in cases of sexual assault and one that is widely accepted in our society. Rarely, do you hear the question — why was she raped?

In sending out conflicting and dangerous messages to women and girls, can we really say that women have achieved equality? Caitlin Moran, in her book ‘How to be a woman’ recommends if you want to do a sexism check just ask are the guys having the same problem. The answer is no.

As if trying to navigate this contradictory culture wasn’t hard enough, we then have people like Dr Catherine Hakim recommending we capitalise on our looks.

Her recent book ‘Honey Money’ received a lot of attention, and in a lot of corners agreement, that women should use their ‘erotic capital’ to get ahead. Looking at high profile figures like Georgia Salpa and Jordan, one can’t help but realise there is strength in her argument — these women are the very personification of using your erotic capital to be successful.

For those of us living in the real world, where men remain the majority power brokers in every sphere (say those who work in PricewaterhouseCoopers and Bank of Ireland), Hakim encourages a very dangerous route.

Women in these companies and others all across the country have already been told in no uncertain terms that how you look is what matters the most. Not only is this incredibly sexist, it’s also horribly demeaning for working women who have toiled extremely hard in school and college to get into one of the top firms.

If we take Hakim’s advice and use our boobs, or flirt our way through the office, when we get down to discussing business, it’s the only thing anyone will think about — not our actual work talents. And the result is a bad one for business and a bad one for women in all walks of life. Keep your erotic capital for your social life, is what I say.

My aim in writing this is not to start a backlash premised on telling women to cover up, like that delivered against Rihanna recently. I have no desire to return to the repression of our past. But neither do I have any desire to stay in a society that happily condones a sexist culture.

Things can and do change. It can be slow, it can be difficult but things do change. The challenge for us, particularly in Ireland where the issue of sex, sexuality and our treatment of women is a complex one with a painful history, is to start an honest discussion about how we view women and men in our society. That discussion starts with admitting we have a problem. So let me take the first step: Sex may sell, and may continue to do so, but it is most definitely a bad buy for all of us in Ireland.

- Linda Kelly is a co-founder and co-organiser of Cork Feminista. More information is available on their website,

Picture: Jordan aka Katie Price. The former glamour model uses her ‘erotic capital’ to get ahead and be successful.

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